The problems with the St. Louis “Gun Buyback” program.

[Today’s post is by guest blogger Robert Kirchoff.]

St. Louis Interim Chief O’Toole, photo courtesy of St. Louis Post Dispatch

Last week I posted on Facebook criticizing the City of St. Louis’ most recent iteration of a long tradition of wasteful political theater: their December 2017 “Gun Buyback” scheme. Launched in the face of the City’s startlingly high murder count–shocking in absolute terms but downright third-world in per capita terms–the “buyback” was of course heralded as an immediate success by the city and its faithful cadre of mostly left-of-center and wholly well-meaning local reporters.

An acquaintance responded to my post echoing support and taking exception to the idea that this effort was anything but a win:

“Seems relatively logical no? Most murderers happen by guns in the city, remove some guns, maybe a few less murders?”

On first inspection this is a perfectly reasonable view. It seems obvious, therefore it must be right. Or at least worth the old college try.

Trouble is, gun “buybacks” (is the government selling guns to people in the first place?) are nonsense hiding in the threadbare guise of common sense. This guise shields the concept from all criticism, no matter how often if fails to achieve the desired result. To people who don’t have the time, expertise, or inclination to think further than the first step, such an idea will always sound reasonable. And most of the time in politics, getting past the initial sniff test is half the battle.

For that reason I hold no grudge towards my acquaintance. This mentality is not confined to him or to his portion of the political spectrum. I do hold a grudge towards the St. Louis politicians who pushed this idea, and who garnered public support and resources for it that could have been used elsewhere to good effect. They should know better.

But what should they know? Why aren’t buybacks a good idea? Here are just a few points that I could come up with off the cuff:

1. Sustainability
If you reduce the supply of something while leaving the demand unchecked, prices rise. This means that insofar as this policy “succeeds” it will begin to fail. That is, even if guns are moved “off the streets” and into police custody, insofar as those guns are in demand the remaining ones become more valuable. Meaning that the relatively modest prices offered by the buyback will rapidly look less attractive, diminishing further effectiveness. “Non-sustainable model” comes to mind.

2. Impact
The above assumes a key point: that supply will be affected enough to meaningfully impact prices. But alas, this is not so. St. Louis’ self-declared “massive” success yielded fewer than 1000 weapons. Sounds like they made a splash. But did they really?

St. Louis city has a population of about 300,000. The metro area exceeds 2,000,000. Roughly one third of U.S. households have a firearm in the house. Over two thirds of gun owners have more than one gun. Napkin math tells me that there are, at minimum, 1,500,000 gun in the metro area. Considering Missouri’s conservative bent and Midwestern location, the true number is likely well north of 2,000,000.

So did 1,000 guns make much of a difference? Probably not. Especially when you consider which guns are being turned in and by who.

3. Self-Selection I: The Attic Crowd
The fact that buybacks in the U.S. are voluntary dooms them.

Understand, I am not advocating they be mandatory (which in any case would likely be illegal given SCOTUS jurisprudence on the Second Amendment); I’m pointing out that absent compulsory participation, buybacks do an awful job of actually reducing the pool of guns likely to be used in crime.

When voluntary, these programs are just a place for people to dump the contents of their attics. Scrounge around and find grandad’s rusty old bolt-action and get $150 for it? Sweet deal. But what rational gun owner is going to sell a rifle worth $1000 for $200? Generally, they won’t. This is borne out by the St. Louis’ own statistics: only 6 out of the 1000 or so guns traded in were considered “assault rifles” (probably erroneously, but more on that later).

Thus you tend to get people turning in guns that don’t work, are rarely used, or are owned by someone ignorant about guns (inheritors, generally). These guns are not the problem and removing them does next to nothing.

4. Self-Selection II: Criminal Avoidance
Put simply: what criminal in his right mind is going to turn in his gun knowing full well the police are right there checking guns for past criminal involvement? Maybe a few exceptionally stupid ones.

This presents a really serious problem for the buyback scheme. A large segment of gun crime is gang violence,* which is to say, repeat offenders. If you disarm 90% of the population but the repeat offenders hold on to their guns, not much is going to change in the gun crime numbers.

*Exact percentages are exceedingly hard to pin down because of statistics gathering methodologies among law enforcement groups, but some estimates place it as high as 80% of gun homicides , though the real number is likely lower if still quite high.

5. Fungibility
Money is fungible. People can spend it as they like.

Consider the following scenario: Bob has a break-action shotgun he got from a family member. Bob doesn’t really want it, since it’s rusty and only fires one shot. But Bob is smart, and trades in his long gun for $150 cash to the fine, well-meaning folks at the St. Louis buyback. What’s to keep Bob from taking this cash to the nearest gun store and buying a brand-new pistol?


In this way, buybacks can function like a gun upgrade coupon program. In fact, buybacks are almost identical in concept to the notorious “cash for clunkers” program pushed early in Obama’s presidential tenure, only in the latter case the Fed’s stated goal was to induce owners of old, dirty cars to go buy news, cleaner cars. The buybackers do the same thing but claim they’re getting guns off the streets. Particular guns, sure. But total guns? Less sure. If you have two different policies that function identically but whose stated aims are diametrically opposed, someone isn’t right.

[An anecdotal aside: While attending the gun show in St. Charles on New Year’s Eve, I observed that the show guests as a group were about half black. This is a marked contrast to the usual sea of white seen most places in St. Charles generally and more specifically at gun shows. I can’t help but wonder if there were some savvy St. Louis gun owners who wisely traded up to something nicer on the buyback’s dime. That’s nice for them, but it doesn’t accomplish what the city intended—and used up scarce resources trying to make happen.]

6. Ignorant pricing
Per the RFT, the St. Louis City buyback featured this price list: “$200 for assault rifles and guns with a magazine capacity of more than ten rounds, $150 for shotguns and rifles, and $100 for handguns.”

First, a petty complaint: assault rifles are defined as select-fire intermediate-cartridge rifles; i.e. they can go full auto. These are both extremely rare (being very difficult to own legally) and extremely expensive (regularly auctioning for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars). Their use here is either ignorant or intentionally misleading. Or, I suppose, the City might really believe that someone will trade in a rifle as valuable as a brand-new car for enough cash for a weekend stay at the Motel 6.

More to the core objection: these prices make no sense! Yes, pistols tend to be the cheapest firearms, so maybe if you didn’t think too hard you’d price them lowest. Except that, per the FBI, pistols account for 90% of all murders involving a gun where the type of gun is known. Rifles of all types accounted for a measly 4%, despite garnering the highest price point in the buyback.

This contradiction, more than anything, signals a lack of seriousness and information on the part of the organizers. A buyback program that was both interested in and informed enough to clear away dangerous weapons specifically rather than disarming the public in general would prioritize pistols above all else. Their presence at the bottom of the list seems to communicate what most gun owners suspect of anti-gun policy-makers: they have no idea what they’re talking about.